Imagine you are young John Quincy Adams. Your ancestors include a dozen kings of England and of France, William the Conqueror and Charlemagne among them. Your parents are educated and ambitious, and you are their eldest son.
You think you might be a bit driven?
Harlow Giles Unger tells the story of John Quincy Adams in a fast-moving, intimate, and wonderfully entertaining biography. Unger is aided by the fact that John Quincy kept a diary, more or less faithfully, from the ages of 10 to 80. He also was an inveterate writer of letters, most of which seem to have survived.
John Quincy was a survivor, too. He was born in an age in which most people did not live to adulthood. He lost siblings and children to the many diseases of the day, but he survived to the beginning of his ninth decade.
During all of those 80 years, John Quincy was, indeed, driven. His parents hectored him to study, so he mastered Greek and Latin before he was 10. When he was 8, his mother, Abigail Adams, took John Quincy up to the top of Penn’s Hill to witness the Battle of Bunker Hill.
In late 1777, with the tide of the Revolutionary War in full flood, the Continental Congress became convinced that Benjamin Franklin was having a bit too much fun in Paris and was not attending sufficiently to the cause of the Revolution, so they assigned John Adams as envoy to France. The assignment meant a harrowing trans-Atlantic voyage in winter. If the ship survived the guns of British warships, rebels like John Adams would be hanged immediately, and all other males aboard would be impressed into the British Navy. So, naturally, John Adams took 10-year-old John Quincy with him.
Six days out, British warships found the Boston, and attacked. The Boston survived a running battle, a hurricane, lightning strikes, a six-week winter crossing and yet another battle in which the Boston captured a British frigate, and during which a cannonball nearly took off the head of John Adams. In John Quincy’s spare time during that voyage, the 10-year-old studied French. And wrote in his diary. And wrote letters to his mother.
John Quincy Adams’ entire life was like that: high risk, hard work and diligent study, duty to parents, survival and adventure. John Quincy lived with his father in Paris and in the Netherlands for much of the Revolutionary War. At age 14, he left his father and travelled to St. Petersburg as secretary to the first U.S. diplomatic agent to Russia, and the imperial court of Catherine the Great.
Not a bad first job for a teenager.
Passing through Prussia, John Quincy encountered slavery for the first time in his life, and instantly became an enemy of that institution. It was an experience that would mark his later career.
Young John Quincy studied at the finest universities in Europe. He walked with kings, discussed politics and philosophy with Franklin and Jay and Jefferson.
Throughout all this, his parents kept up the pressure: John Quincy must not be so “slovenly.” He must study harder, write more, learn more, ever more. And he must hold himself away from the sins of the flesh, and so on. For the most part, John Quincy was dutiful and diligent, though his parents never seemed quite satisfied.
The book reads like a novel, except that, as fiction, the story would be implausible. Tragedy, triumph, intrigue, romance. Duels, liaisons, alcoholism, suicide, murder, political scandals. Constitutional crises, war, then fragile peace, and threats of secession — first by the North, then by the South. Repeat.
Who would believe that our hero would, having served as a humiliated one-term-president, run for Congress? Or be elected and re-elected for eight tumultuous terms, and defend the Amistad slaves before the Supreme Court? Meet a young Abraham Lincoln, and write about the inevitability of Civil War? That he swam daily, stark naked, in the Potomac while President and long after? That he worked for his nation right up to the end, collapsing after casting a vote in Congress, and dying in the Speaker’s Room?
It’s all implausible, improbable, fascinating, and true.
“John Quincy Adams” is a delight.
It should be noted that I listened to the audio book. By doing so, I missed some very nice images that I have since seen in the print version.
If you are interested in the audio version, Library2Go has it for free. Visit library2go.lib.overdrive.com.
Joseph Yetter of Azalea is a writer and retired physician who has a passion for public health and public policy.